Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

James D. Seymour: Hong Kong Nears Its Half Way Point

In a few short years (2022) China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) will hit the half-way mark through its post-colonial period of semi-independence. During this half century, the SAR is promised “a high degree of political and economic autonomy” (高度自治和生活方式). How it is actually fairing is, of course, important to us Hong Kong residents, but the situation also serves as a yardstick for what others, notably Taiwanese “compatriots,” might expect under a “one-country, two-systems” scenario.

For all of its attractiveness, no one would argue that Hong Kong was ever perfect. Certainly, it did not occur to the British to democratize its colony—until the last minute, when steps in that direction struck Beijing as cynical moves to prevent any meaningful “one country” from coming into existence.

How “free” is Hong Kong today? For business owners, very.[1] The Heritage Foundation considers Hong Kong’s economy to be the world’s freest.[2]

But for consumers, the picture is somewhat different. There is hardly is a free real estate market: Land is generally government owned, mostly held under leases that run out in 2047. Merchandizing is a mixed bag. Although the SAR still has mom-and-pop retail stores, if one wants to shop at a large market one has had the duopoly choice between Wellcome (Jardine’s), and ParknShop and Taste--both belonging to Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠). If one wants to patronize a large pharmacy/sundry store, one has had a choice of Mannings (Jardine’s) or Watson’s (Li Ka-shing). Fortunately, now non-establishment (including on-line) outlets are giving those some competition.[3] Still, this is hardly laissez-faire capitalism.

Politically, Hong Kong is even less free, especially when it comes to the news media. Long gone are the days when the South China Morning Post was one of the world’s better newspapers. The Chinese-language press also operates under major constraints. While wealthy Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily still manages to take an independent stance, it has to pay the price of lost advertising, especially from property developers and major banks. Newspapers know that if they fail to toe the political line, their advertising revenue will largely dry up.

The on-line media offer more hope. However, vaguely written legislation appears to criminalize electronic expression that would not be a crime if no computer or smart phone were involved.[4] As for the traditional broadcast media, the jury is still out.  Broadcasters need licenses, and are subject to government policies, which includes vetting of ownership. Some licenses have been denied, but the government insists that no politics has been involved. This, however, rings somewhat hollow in the face of the call by Executive Councilor Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀) for the government’s RTHK networks (once BBC clones) to end all of their news coverage.[5]

The decline of press freedom has not gone unnoticed by the international media, which increasingly find Taiwan a more attractive base for journalists.[6] The expulsion of Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet appears to have been a wakeup call. His successor is now based in Taipei, as is Deutsche Welle’s Greater China bureau.

Political and intellectual freedom in Hong Kong are seriously at risk. University faculties are nervous; my own popular but politically incorrect course was suddenly dropped mid-semester, no reason given. The SAR’s dissidents actually face jail when they raise sensitive issues or appear to be a political threat to the establishment.[7] The main issue is meaningful elections, avoiding which is the government’s bottom line.

Culturally, Hong Kong is a mixed bag in terms of terms of individual rights. Freedom to marry has been a hot-button issue, with a majority of Christian churches having an outsized negative influence on the matter. Nonetheless, the courts have now ruled, and the government accepts, that, at least for immigration purposes, same-sex marriages must be recognized.[8] In this case, the judiciary acted without government or Chinese interference, but that has not always been the case.[9]

So Hong Kong’s “autonomy” is a moving and elusive target. The direction however is clear; people have to settle for less and less. Baring China itself becoming democratic and law-based (which is not on the horizon), one cannot see the downward trend being reversed. Nonetheless, Beijing, which is ultimately responsible for the situation, pays a price for this. Whereas the “recovery” of Taiwan is the over-arching state goal, the less that Taiwanese can see “two systems” genuinely prevailing in Hong Kong, the less attractive they find the idea of any “one China” that might include themselves.[10]

Still, all of his must be placed in context. As one Hongkonger remarked to me: “Although I don't think that everything is fine in the SAR, I always remain grateful that I live on the south side, not north side, of the Shenzhen River.” One wonders if people will still feel that way after 2047—which would depend not so much on what happens in Hong Kong as what happens on the mainland.

 

 

© 2019, James D. Seymour

 


[1] Kui-Wai Li, Economic Freedom: Lessons of Hong Kong (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2012).

[2] 2019 Index of Economic Freedom. Link.

[3] These include 佳宝, 价真站, 759, and Best Mart 360, none of which have a broad range of merchandise. (759 is a low-margin store owned by an international conglomerate; it has done poorly in recent years.)

[4] Karen Cheung, “Dishonesty and Computers: How a Loosely Drafted Offence is Abused by Prosecutors,” Hong Kong Free Press, 17 December 2017, 23:23. Link.

[5]   RTHK, “RTHK Should Stop Providing News, Says Regina Ip.”
  https://news.rthk.hk/rthk/en/component/k2/1447134-20190311.htm

[6] “As China Tightens Its Grip on Hong Kong, Taiwan Emerges as Asia’s Hub for Foreign Media,” Hong Kong Free Press, 23 February 2019. Link.

[7] See Maya Wang, “Political Prisoners in Hong Kong,” Human Rights Watch, 18 August 2017. Links:  English, Chinese.

[8] Government’s 18 September 2018 general press release and interim arrangement.

[9] See Greg Totode and James Pomfret, “Hong Kong’s Judges Voice Fears Over China Influence in Judiciary,” Reuters, 15 March 2018, link.

[10] Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-Tsan 鄭文燦, of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, recently told me that, as far as Taiwan is concerned, “one country two systems” is an absolute non-starter.

 

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